GREG JENNETT, HOST: A lot of time's past since Australia's horrible summer of bushfires in late 2019 and early 2020. We've also had the floods in Queensland and northern New South Wales early last year. Yet the destruction of houses and the loss of possessions have left to long tail of misery for people in those areas. The economic cost is easy to calculate the mental stress and anguish is less easy to calculate.
To that end, the government's drawing up at federal level, state and local, a playbook on how to get mental health services into disaster areas when these events arise. Assistant Minister for Mental Health, Emma McBride's got federal responsibility for this plan. She joined us here in the studio. Emma McBride, thanks for joining us once again on the program. Now you're talking about a National Disaster Mental Health Framework which I think you're involved in launching this week. It had as its beginnings, I think, the Black Summer Bushfires which truly were national in their scale burning across several states at the time. How comprehensive is this arrangement you're working on? What's national about it?
McBRIDE: So this National Disasters Mental Health and Wellbeing Framework is really about a level of coordination and communication. We know that the wellbeing of individuals and communities depends on strong collaboration and communication in the event of natural disasters and in their aftermath, and in Australia we're seeing an increase in severity and frequency of national disasters, including natural disasters, and in just the last 12 months, 351 local government areas have been impacted by a disaster including monsoonal floods. So, this is really to look at embedding the mental health and wellbeing response into our response to national disasters, which is why it's been developed by the National Health Mental Health Commission in conjunction with the National Emergency Management Agency.
JENNETT: And it picks up on a number of recommendations, I noticed, from the Royal Commission that looked originally into the Black Summer Bushfires. Things like keeping a track of people affected even if they've moved on and moved out of, in that case, a bushfire burnt area. I think there's suggestions about a mobile app and other technology to do that. Why is that important, building that into this system?
McBRIDE: It's absolutely critical because we know that with the distress that comes with natural disasters, the mental health distress that comes in the aftermath can be equal in impact to the disaster itself, and we know that these can emerge over time. And sometimes there's sort of a lag after the actual rescue and recovery, and once you know all of those efforts have moved on, then people are trying to re-establish their lives and they're then often, at that time, they're facing this increasing distress. So, we need to make sure that there is that strong response. We want to build resilience in communities before a natural disaster, during disasters, and importantly in the aftermath as well.
JENNETT: And what do you envisage as the Commonwealth's main role? It doesn't, by in large run much of the health workforce itself? So is it just the provision of funding or what's its role within the Framework?
McBRIDE: So within the Framework, we know that the Commonwealth has a real responsibility in leadership and in coordination, and we know that in the responses that we've seen that have been effective, where communities have been well protected, that there has been a strong level of collaboration and coordination and part of that, band there's several guiding principles of the Framework, is about strong communication, about building capacity in communities and really working across levels of government, including with state governments and local governments. And a good example that I saw recently was, and in terms of the right kind of response was in that absolute tragedy that we saw in the in the bus crash in the Hunter.
JENNETT: The Greta bus crash.
McBRIDE: And what we saw was that, in that situation, the Police Area Command and the local health district working together and a recovery centre, from which other services and supports were able to be deployed. And having spoken to the local mayor there, Jay Suvaal, and the Primary Health Network, it was, in this tragedy with the ripple effects throughout communities, to know that there was at the time counsellors and support services available immediately. And we know that, in the aftermath of that, that ongoing coordination which the Commonwealth can have a role in, particularly through Primary Health Networks will make sure that those individuals and communities get the right level of support and care during and immediately after and in the aftermath.
JENNETT: So, to use that example, there was a Commonwealth role in the aftermath of that bus crash?
McBRIDE: So, in this situation, the Primary Health Network, which is the Commonwealth local health entity, has been very actively involved in the response and the coordination of that and will be ongoing to make sure that those communities and those people and families impacted will get that support right now and ongoing.
JENNETT: Does it surprise you that to some degree, this hadn't been addressed in a coordinated national way before?
McBRIDE: I think what we've seen is that many of the responses have been well intentioned, and many of them have been effective, but with the increase in frequency and severity of national disasters that there was definitely the need, and I recognised the former government in starting this work after the Black Summer Bushfires, and us being able to continue that to make sure that in communities right around Australia that people get the care and support they need.
And another part of this that I think is was it's important to mention is that our first responders, and as part of this response and in the Budget that we've announced, is funding towards the Black Dog Institute and also the Australian Psychological Society. And the Black Dog Institute has a program called NEWSS which is the National Emergency Workers Support Service, and what they have been able to demonstrate is that with the right kind of care and support that first responders can recover from PTSD, and we know that they have twice the prevalence of PTSD as a general population. So, it's really good news for those first responders themselves, keeping them well and for us as communities because they're so vital in keeping us safe.
JENNETT: Now of course, always an important consideration. And what about mobility across state or local government boundaries of mental health counsellors and other support workers? Of course, when we see bushfires, it's very common these days for a state that isn't burning to lend its firefighters to another jurisdiction. Do you see that becoming a feature that might evolve from this Framework?
McBRIDE: And there is a part of this already. So, there's the Australian Psychological Society have a Disaster Response Network and they came out of the Black Saturday Bushfires in 2009. And what it was borne out of was a psychologist saying, putting up their hands to help, and so from that has developed this Disaster Response Network of psychologists and we've boosted funding so that they can expand the work they do.
And they proactively work through agencies like the bush fire brigade or through paramedics or other first responders to be able to do these welfare checks on first responders and we're very pleased to be able to boost funding to the APS to broaden and expand the work that they're doing. That's a really good practical example of healthcare practitioners, in this case, clinical psychologists with particular training in how to respond to the trauma that first responders experience and how effective that has been in communities.
JENNETT: Well let's hope not too many people are requiring these services into the future, although as you say, the trend is only ever upwards. Emma McBride, great to talk again. We'll catch up again soon.
McBRIDE: Thank you. Thanks very much.